Saturday, May 18, 2024

Sheriff Who Took Homeless Camps Off LA Streets is Losing Re-Election Bid

Four years ago, when Alex Villanueva beat out incumbent Jim McDonnell to become Los Angeles County Sheriff, it was the first time in about a century a sitting county sheriff lost a re-election bid. Now Villanueva faces a turnabout of fortune, as the latest midterm election returns show him training his opponent, former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, 56.8 percent to 43.2 percent, with 44 percent of the ballots for the contest counted.

Luna, who’s been adorned with accolades from a long roster of liberals across the county, has called out Villanueva on his fiery relationship with the county Board of Supervisors and accused the incumbent of ignoring the problem of deputy gangs within the department.

Villanueva has answered Luna’s criticisms by saying his battles with the board grew from the fact he is a fierce defender of the department and its deputies — and that he has, in fact, gone to great lengths to attack and ban alleged deputy cliques within the agency.

“Mr. Luna, the Civilian Oversight Commission, the Board of Supervisors, they cannot wrap their minds around the idea that (on) my very first day in office, I removed the East L.A. station captain from his command because I had doubts about his ability to lead,” Villanueva was quoted in an online story posted by KNBC-TV in Los Angeles.

The sheriff said four deputies were also fired from the East L.A. station over their actions during a widely-publicized fight at a gathering of deputies. He also explained he implemented the department’s first-ever policy barring “outlaw groups” and codified it in training materials and sponsored legislation to extend the reach of the policy statewide.

“There is nothing legally we can do left,” Villanueva said. “We can’t line up people, strip them down and fire people with tattoos, as some people have literally suggested. So when my opponent falsely asserts that nothing has been done, he’s just repeating the narrative politically driven by the Oversight Commission that works for the board.”

Beyond the lingering questions about deputy gangs, Villanueva turned a lot of heads and ruffled a lot of liberal feathers when he set to the task of cleaning up homeless encampments in the city — after a long history of other leaders pledging  to correct the problem -and accepting millions of dollars in funding to help their efforts, though seemingly little if anything ever managed to improve.

According to the Los Angeles County Homeless Count, ten years ago, the homeless count was approximately 40,000 and today that number doubled to approximately 80,000.

Villanueva managed to mobilize teams of deputies and social workers to intervene and help clean out several homeless encampments, which was applauded by residents and business interests.

Luna has insisted throughout the campaign that deputy gangs have continued to be an issue; there are “men and women from the sheriff’s department who have come forward, good men and women who want this rooted out,” he said the the KNBC report.

“So how do employees feel about coming forward and reporting misconduct when they know you have a sheriff that’s going to look the other way?” he asked. “That’s been proven time and time again.

“I still have family who live here in East Los Angeles and just a couple of weeks ago, being in the East Los Angeles parade,” continued Luna, he was stopped by “many people…saying, ‘Chief, we need change here. There are gangs that are running this station. We need them out.’

“These are community members, and not just one or two, many of them. It’s a problem. It needs to be fixed. We need change.”
Villanueva’s election four years ago came with strong backing from reform-minded community groups as well as Democrats. But support for the first-term sheriff among those groups waned considerable as he repeatedly clashed with the Democrat-dominated Board of Supervisors over funding and policy matters. Spurred by what he insists has been ongoing, politically-motivated harassment by members of the board, Villanueva has also repeatedly defied subpoenas to appear before the Civilian Oversight Commission and refused to enforce the county’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate among his deputies and department employees.

His re-election campaign asserts the sheriff has worked on restoring public trust in his department, including an effort to roll out body-worn cameras and improving minimum entrance requirements for new deputies. The campaign advertises Villanueva’s department is “the most diverse in the nation.”

After his win in the June primary, Villanueva said he is “focusing on what matters to people — homelessness and violent crime…We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, because it’s the right thing to do.

He added that his job “is to keep the community safe. If that means I have to battle the Board of Supervisors, so be it.”

Luna argued during his campaign that the sheriff’s department is being “mismanaged” by Villanueva and that if he’s elected he will work to restore trust in the agency  as an outsider without any prior connections to the sheriff’s department.

He said he will “modernize” the sheriff’s department and its jail system and improve the mental well-being of deputies and employees.